George Washington's inauguration



When, in the spring of 1789, the new government went into operation in the City of New York, after the inauguration of Washington as the first President of the republic, there was a general readiness manifested by thinking men of all creeds in politics and religion to try the "experiment," as the new order of things was deemed to be, fairly and fully. They saw clearly that it was a momentous experiment to attempt, without a precedent, to adjust the machinery of a government, political and social, that was the embodiment of the ideas of local self-rule and of national union, so as to secure perfect harmony, and to avoid all friction. They saw that it required the highest type of statesmanship to accomplish that delicate and difficult task; therefore, in the elections of their executive and legislative representatives, the people put forth their honest efforts to secure the best men for the respective offices. So judicious was their choice, that when Washington stood before their representatives face to face, in the old Federal Hall in New York, to deliver his inaugural address, he was constrained to say that in them he saw the surest pledges that the foundations of "the national policy would be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality, and the pre-eminence of free government be exemplified by all the attributes which can win the affections of its citizens and command the respect of the world." He continued: "I dwell on this prospect with every satisfaction which an ardent love of my country can inspire; since there is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage, between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public propriety and felicity; since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained; and since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally, staked on the experiment intrusted to the hands of the American people."

Washington was making the usual tour of his fields on the 14th of April, 1789, when Charles Thompson, the Secretary of the Continental Congress, arrived at Mount Vernon with a letter from John Langdon, the pro-tempore president of the United States Senate, announcing the election of the illustrious farmer to the Presidency of the republic. Washington accepted the office, and made immediate preparations for the journey to the seat of government. Toward evening, accompanied by his favorite body-servant, Billy, he left Mount Vernon and rode rapidly toward Fredericksburg, to visit his mother, then past eighty years of age and suffering from an incurable disease. The interview was a touching one. When he was about to leave, the son promised the mother, that so soon as public business would allow, he would hasten to Virginia to see her. "You will see me no more," said the aged matron; "my great age and the disease which is rapidly approaching my vitals, warn me that I shall not be long in this world." The dutiful son stooped and kissed her, as she sat in her arm-chair, when she took his brawny hands in her attenuated ones and said: "Go, George; fulfill the high destinies which Heaven appears to assign to you; go, my son, and may that Heaven's and your mother's blessing be with you always." They never met again on the earth. When Washington returned to Virginia, his mother's body was in the grave. She died in August, 1789, at the age of eighty-two years.

On the morning of the 6th of April, Washington left Mount Vernon for New York, accompanied by Mr. Thompson and Colonel Humphreys. He was met at his porter's lodge by a cavalcade of his neighbors and friends, who escorted him to Alexandria, where he partook of a public dinner. Everywhere on his journey he was greeted by demonstrations of the most profound respect and reverence. At Georgetown he was received with honors, and at Baltimore he was feasted. At Gray's Ferry on the Schuylkill, near Philadelphia, a triumphal arch had been erected and covered with laurel branches. As Washington passed through it, Angelica Peale, a daughter of the artist, Charles Wilson Peale-a child of rare beauty, concealed among the foliage-let down an ornamented civic crown of laurel which rested on the head of the Patriot. This incident drew from the multitude loud huzzas, and shouts of "Long live George Washington! long live the Father of his Country!" filled the air. When he crossed the Delaware at Trenton, the scene of one of his earliest victories in the war for independence, he was led through a triumphal arch erected upon a bridge that spanned a small stream over which he had retreated before Cornwallis more than twenty years before. The arch was supported by thirteen pillars trimmed with evergreens and flowers. It had been erected and adorned by the women of New Jersey, and bore the words: "The Defender of the Mothers, will be the Protector of the Daughters." Many mothers, with their daughters, appeared on each side of the structure, all dressed in white. As the President-elect passed through, thirteen young girls in white dresses, their heads adorned with flowers, and holding baskets of flowers in their hands, scattered some of them in his way, while they sang an ode of welcome.

At Elizabethtown Point, Washington was met by a committee from each house of Congress, and civil and military officers. They had prepared a magnificent barge for his reception, manned by thirteen pilots in white uniforms. In this the President-elect was conveyed to New York. The shipping in New York harbor was decorated with flags, and the waters swarmed with gaily-dressed small boats filled with ladies and gentlemen. There was an exception to the general display of honors. The Spanish ship-of-war Galveston, lying not far from the present Castle Garden, was not decorated, and was silent. This neglect-this seeming churlishness-was so marked, that it called forth severe comments, when suddenly, as the barge came abreast of her, she displayed, as if by magic, the flags of all nations, and fired a salute of thirteen guns. These were answered by guns from the battery on the shore; and in the midst of the roar of artillery and the shouts of a vast multitude of citizens, the Beloved Patriot landed at White-hall and was conducted to a house prepared for his residence on Franklin Square. Such was the reception of the first President-elect, at the seat of the new national government. There was general joy and good feeling, but satire and caricature appeared like ravens among bevies of white doves. Political parties were already beginning to take distinct shape. The friends of the Constitution, represented by Washington, were called Federalists, and those opposed to it were called Anti-Federalists. On the day after Washington's arrival a caricature appeared-silly enough, but charged with bitter feeling-in which the President was seen mounted on an ass, in the arms of Billy, Colonel David Humphreys leading the Jack and chanting hosannas and birthday odes. The picture was full of disloyal and profane allusions. The Devil appeared prominent, and from his mouth issued the words:

"The glorious time has come to pass, When David shall conduct an ass."

On the 30th of April Washington was inaugurated President of the republic. The ceremony took place in the open gallery of the old City Hall (afterward called Federal Hall), on the site of the present Custom-House, in the presence of a vast multitude. Washington was dressed in a suit of dark brown cloth and white silk stockings, all of American manufacture. His hair was powdered and dressed in the fashion of the day, clubbed and ribboned. The oath of office was administered by Robert R. Livingston, then chancellor of the State of New York. The open Bible (then and now the property of St. John's Lodge of Freemasons of the City of New York), on which the President laid his hand, was held on a rich crimson velvet cushion by Mr. Otis, Secretary of the Senate. Near them were John Adams, who had been chosen Vice-President; George Clinton, Governor of New York; Philip Schuyler, John Jay, General Knox, Ebenezer Hazard, Samuel Osgood and other distinguished men. After taking the oath and kissing the sacred book reverently, Washington closed his eyes and in an attitude of devotion said: "So help me God!" The Chancellor exclaimed, "It is done!" and then turning to the people he shouted, "Long live George Washington, the first President of the United States." That shout was echoed and re-echoed by the multitude, when the President and the members of Congress retired to the Senate Chamber, where Washington pronounced a most impressive inaugural address. At the conclusion, he and the members went in procession to St. Paul's Church (which, with the other churches, had been opened for prayers at nine o'clock that morning), and there they invoked the blessing of Almighty God upon the new government. The first person who grasped Washington's hand in congratulation, after the ceremony, was Richard Henry Lee, his friend from childhood, to whom he had written when they were boys nine years of age-"I am going to get a whip-top soon, and you may see it and whip it." How many human whip-tops had these staunch patriots managed since they wrote their childish epistles!

The new government entered upon its duties under the keen scrutiny of a jealous opposition, and an ever-watchful democracy which regarded with alarm every aspect of aristocracy to be found in the new order of things. Even the saluting of Mrs. Washington with cannon-peals on her arrival in New York a month after her husband's inauguration, and the escorting her to the President's house by military, was commented upon as "opening monarchical ceremonies." These suspicions were manifested, in a large degree, in the Congress, where the propriety of bestowing dignified titles upon the President and Vice-President was discussed. Warm debates were had. "Will not the people say," exclaimed a member from South Carolina, "that they have been deceived by the Convention that framed the Constitution, and that it has been continued with a view to lead them on by degrees to that kind of government which they have thrown off with abhorrence? Does the dignity of a nation consist in the distance between the first magistrate and the citizens! in the exaltation of one man and the humiliation of the rest?" No positive conclusion was arrived at. The House of Representatives had already addressed Washington simply as "President of the United States;" but before long it became common to prefix the words "His Excellency," which has been done ever since. It was known that Washington had no special desire for a title; but the Vice-President was decidedly in favor of marks of distinction, and had adopted in his equipage and manner a style that offended many of the members of Congress.

Washington was anxious to so regulate his intercourse with the public at large, that he might secure dignity for the office and order for his own comfort and the public good. Wishing to give his time to public affairs, he resolved at the outset not to return any visits. To prevent being overrun with mere callers, he appointed the hour between three and four o'clock each Tuesday for the reception of gentlemen. He met ladies at the receptions given by Mrs. Washington, who also had stated times for the ceremony. At receptions by the latter, in which the company consisted only of persons connected with the government and their families, foreign ministers and their families, and persons moving in the best circles of refined society, all were expected to appear in full dress. On these occasions Washington generally stood by the side of his wife, dressed in a plain suit of brown cloth with bright buttons, without hat or dress-sword. At his own levees he wore a suit of black velvet, black silk stockings, silver knee and shoe buckles, and yellow gloves. He held in his hand a cocked-hat with a black cockade. His hat was trimmed with a feather around the edge about one inch deep. He also wore an elegant dress-sword upon his hip in such a manner that only the point of the scabbard might be seen below the skirt of his coat. As visitors came in, they were introduced to him by Colonel Humphreys, who was master of ceremonies, when they were arranged in a circle around the room. At a quarter-past three o'clock the door was closed, when the company for the day was completed. The President then began on the right, and spoke to each visitor, calling him by name, and addressing a few words to him. When he had completed the circuit, he resumed his first position, when the visitors approached him, bowed and retired. By four o'clock this ceremony was over.

This "court-life" was very distasteful to Mrs. Washington. She wrote to a friend: "I live a very dull life here, and know nothing that passes in the town. I never go to any public place-indeed I think I am more like a state-prisoner than anything else. There are certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from; and as I cannot do as I like, I am obstinate and stay at home a great deal." She was a careful, bustling, industrious little housewife, more fond of her home than promiscuous society, and a noble exemplar for American women. "Let us repair to the old lady's room," wrote the wife of a revolutionary officer from Mount Vernon, just after Washington retired from the Presidency. "It is nicely fixed for all sorts of work. On one side sits the chambermaid, with her knitting; on the other, a little colored pet learning to sew. An old, decent woman is there, with her table and shears, cutting out the negroes' winter-clothing, while the good old lady directs them all, incessantly knitting herself. She points out to me several pair of nice colored stockings and gloves she had just finished, and presents me with a pair, half done, which she begs me to finish and wear for her sake. It is wonderful, after a life spent as these good people have necessarily spent theirs, to see them in retirement assume those domestic habits that prevail in our country."





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